A French parliamentary committee has recently recommended that the niqab — the face veil — be banned in public places. The justification cited is that it is an affront to France’s principles of secularism and equality. President Nicolas Sarkozy also stated that wearing the niqab is not a religious obligation. In Britain, the United Kingdom Independence Party has called for a niqab ban in public places based on similar rationale.
Women often wear the face veil because they see it as a religious obligation; some do it because they are seeking a mark of piety above and beyond the basic duty. They may wear it to avoid being defined by their sexuality, to be judged on their intellect instead. Some even argue that the niqab brings them greater equality and empowerment. But they also cover up to be “chaste” and “modest”, hiding their beauty from the “prying” male eye — a measure often demanded by totalitarian groups like the Taliban.
The niqab is an accessory that women can do without. Many scholars say it is not a religious duty and many religious women do not wear it. Women who believe that the niqab is empowering are, in my view, oppressing themselves. No one would expect a man to cover his face to hide his “sexuality”. And a woman who defines her modesty in terms of her appearance is in fact insecure.
I used to wear the hijab (the headscarf), and at times the niqab, because I believed it was a religious obligation. I stopped because I realised three things: if men view women as sexual objects, nothing a woman puts on her face or body will change that attitude; modesty does not lie in outer appearances but in conduct and manner; God judges on actions as opposed to appearances.
I, and many other British Muslims, see the niqab not as a desexualisation of women, but as a symbol of oppression and patriarchal dominance — and one that is, disturbingly, appearing more and more in a society that champions women’s rights. It is important that we get this message across to those who choose or are forced to wear the niqab, and to those doing the forcing.
The answer does not lie in government banning the niqab outright, but only where facial interaction is necessary in public spaces. A total ban would be contrary to the freedom of choice that we uphold in Britain. It is not the place of government to dictate to Muslims, or people of different faiths, what their religious obligations are. But it is the role of Muslim communities, and society as a whole, to debate what we will and will not tolerate.